Wildfires rage during Germany’s spring heatwave

The warm weather in Germany may have been perfect for enjoying the Easter break. But it has increased the danger of forest fires.

Wildfires rage during Germany's spring heatwave
Firefighters extinguish a fire in the forest near Dreetz in Brandenburg. Photo: DPA.

Firefighters have been battling forest fires in several parts of Germany – and experts have warned that more could take hold as the warm weather continues.

In Thuringia, emergency services were trying to put out a huge blaze in a forest area of around 13 hectares on Tuesday.

The fire, which broke out for the first time on Easter Sunday, was considered to have been put out, but it has since flared up again in several places.

Residents have been asked to keep the windows and doors of the houses closed.

The continuing drought over Easter, which has seen temperatures in the high 20s and no rain, has aggravated the danger of forest fires in Germany. 

On Tuesday, the environment ministry in Brandenburg announced that the risk had been pushed up to level 5 – the highest level – for the entire federal state.

A large forest fire erupted 20 kilometres north of Berlin early Monday morning. The blaze spread across an area of roughly 2.5 hectares before being brought under control by the fire brigade.

The cause of the fire is not known.

The German Weather Service (DWD) also marked the south of Mecklenburg-Western Pomerania, northern Saxony, eastern Saxony-Anhalt and the region around Celle in Lower Saxony as very high risk.

In Spremberg near Cottbus, a large fire broke out on Monday night, forest fire protection commissioner Raimund Engel said.

The fire had been reported shortly before midnight and extinguished in the early morning hours. But there were also problems with fires in other states, including Bavaria.

On Monday in Hersbruck, east of Nuremberg, a one hectare area of forest caught fire.

Fires across parts of Germany

Meanwhile, after a power line ruptured, two hectares of forest caught fire in a village east of Schwerin, Mecklenburg-West Pomerania. According to the police, a falling tree had damaged the high-voltage line. A total of 50 firefighters were at the scene.

In Lower Saxony, the fire brigade was still working on extinguishing two large fires on Tuesday. The fire near Vechta, which broke out on Easter Monday, was almost completely put out, a police spokeswoman said on Tuesday afternoon.

Around 150 fire fighters are still working to put out the fire. On the previous day, there had been up to 400 on site. The fire had burned on several hectares of land.

Some forests in the north of Saxony are have been closed off to people due to the very high risk of forest fires. The highest warning level – 5 – was in place on Tuesday.

'Very dry'

Meteorologist Florian Engelmann of the DWD said that April had been “very dry” again in Saxony so far. Up to and including Easter, an average of only 2.1 litres of precipitation per square meter fell in Saxony. According to the DWD, the long-term average for April is 58.4 litres per square metre.

The danger of forest fires is a little higher than in the previous year, warn the Lower Saxony Forests group.

“It’s because of the dry plants remaining from the past year”, explained spokesman Mathias Aßmann.

Experts said that higher winds increase the risk of wildfires because it can help spread the blaze.

People are being warned not to smoke in forests, or light any fires, warned Aßmann.

Cigarette butts thrown out of the car could lead to fires on embankments. “Citizens should call emergency services immediately in the event of a fire,” he said.

The situation is not expected to ease until later in the week when some rain is expected, according to forecasters.

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Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

The more the sun shines in the southern German town of Aurach, the more likely it is that Jens Husemann's solar panels will be disconnected from the grid -- an exasperating paradox at a time when Germany is navigating an energy supply crisis.

Why sunny weather in Germany can switch off solar panels

“It’s being switched off every day,” Husemann told AFP during a recent sunny spell, saying there had been more than 120 days of forced shutdowns so far this year.

Husemann, who runs an energy conversion business near Munich, also owns a sprawling solar power system on the flat roof of a transport company in Aurach, Bavaria.

The energy generated flows into power lines run by grid operator N-Ergie, which then distributes it on the network.

But in sunny weather, the power lines are becoming overloaded — leading the grid operator to cut off supply from the solar panels.

“It’s a betrayal of the population,” said Husemann, pointing to soaring electricity prices and a continued push to install more solar panels across Germany.

Europe’s biggest economy is eyeing an ambitious switch to renewables making up 80 percent of its electricity from 2030 in a bid to go carbon neutral.

N-ergie thermal power station

The thermal power station of energy supplier N-Ergie in Nuremberg, southern Germany. (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But Russia’s invasion of Ukraine has put a spanner in the works.

Moscow has cut gas supplies to Germany by 80 percent, in what is believed to be a bid to weaken the European powerhouse’s resolve in backing Ukraine.

READ ALSO: OPINION: How many massacres will it take for Germany to turn off Russian gas?

As a result, Berlin has been scrambling for alternative sources across the world to replace the shortfall.

This makes it all the more frustrating for Husemann, whose solar panels normally generate enough electricity for 50 households. With the repeated shutdowns, he suspects they will only supply half of their capacity by the end
of the year.

Grid bottlenecks

Grid operator N-Ergie, which is responsible for harvesting electricity from Husemann’s panels, admits the situation is less than ideal.

There were 257 days last year when it had to cut off supply from solar panels on parts of the grid.

“We are currently witnessing — and this is a good thing — an unprecedented boom in photovoltaic parks,” Rainer Kleedoerfer, head of N-Ergie’s development department, told AFP.

An employee of energy supplier N-ERGIE working at the company's network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany. 

An employee of energy supplier N-Ergie working at the company’s network control centre in Nuremberg, southern Germany.  (Photo by Christof STACHE / AFP)

But while it takes just a couple of years to commission a solar power plant, updating the necessary infrastructure takes between five and 10 years, he said.

“The number of interventions and the amount of curtailed energy have increased continuously in recent years” as a result, according to N-Ergie spokesman Michael Enderlein.

“The likelihood is that grid bottlenecks will actually increase in the coming years,” while resolving them will take several more years, Enderlein said.

According to Carsten Koenig, managing director of the German Solar Industry Association, the problem is not unique to solar power and also affects wind energy.

READ ALSO: Reader question – Should I modernise my heating system in Germany?

Solar bottlenecks tend to be regional and temporary, he said. “Occasionally, however, we hear that especially in rural areas in Bavaria, the shutdowns are more frequent.”

2.4 million households

Koenig agrees the problem is likely to get worse before it gets better.

“This will be especially true if political measures aimed at sufficiently expanding the power grid in Germany… drag on for too long,” he said.

Some 6.1 terawatt hours of electricity from renewables had to be curtailed in 2020, according to the most recent figures available.

With an average consumption of around 2,500 kilowatt hours per year in a two-person household, this would have been enough to power around 2.4 million households.

A spokesman for Germany’s Federal Network Agency said it did not share the belief that “it will not be possible to expand the network in line with demand in the coming years”.

Only some aspects of the expansion are seeing delays, the spokesman said — mainly due to slow approval procedures and a lack of specialist companies to do the work.

According to Husemann there have also been delays to the payments he is supposed to receive in return for the solar power he supplies — or cannot supply.

He said he is already owed around 35,000 euros ($35,600) for electricity produced so far this year that has never found its way into a socket.